As I write, access to abortion is facing its greatest threat in more than forty years. Attacks, some absurd and incoherent, have passed state legislatures in more than eight states and most have been signed into law. With legal challenges pending, the goal of these new bills is to attack the precedent established in Roe v. Wade. In this post, I want to take a long hard look at abortion rights, and the conversations surrounding this topic. Mostly, I want to resolve a media distortion that magnifies the divide and separates people on the issue when they are, in fact, not so far apart. The conclusion I will draw is that we are all pro-choice, only some of us want to choose for others, the rest want to choose for themselves.
From the point of view of someone entrenched in the media, abortion seems to be the most divisive issue facing America today. But the reality is very different. Consider the following timeline:
On the left-most antipode is conception, the moment when a sperm fertilizes an egg and a single-celled life is formed. On the right is birth, when a human child would naturally evacuate its mother’s body. In between are a host of different “milestones” that have historically been associated with the abortion line. The abortion line is the point where a baby’s right to life supersedes a mother’s right to bodily autonomy. Make no mistake, every single one of us, no matter how “pro-life” or how “pro-choice”, believes in an abortion line. No “pro-choice” advocate believes in post-birth abortion (despite the current President’s hate-mongering rhetoric), just as no “pro-life” advocate believes in forced insemination in order not to waste potential babies by not creating them. These notions sound absurd to our ears precisely because we by and large agree about the abortion line, and even generally where it should fall: somewhere in the 37-week period between conception and birth.
This narrow band in the process of human beings coming into and out of existence is but a speck, and yet even the most extreme among us tend to agree that it is in this range that the abortion line must be drawn. It is our media coverage, with its over-developed sense of drama, that zooms-in, distorting the reality until these rather close theories appear extremely divided. This microscoping effect leads to hostility and even violence as near-agreement becomes vast disagreement. Its effect is so strong that as you are reading this today, you’ll probably feel the need to argue that there is no “near-agreement”.
So let me defend that position a bit. Assuming you accept the medical timeline above and my stipulative-definition of an abortion line, we might ask ourselves if it is ever acceptable to draw it before birth? I have never met a pro-life advocate who was so strongly pro-life that they believed in the forced conception of girls and women in order to prevent the loss of children who would have existed. Now, what is the reason for this? If you are “pro-life”, consistency would dictate that you must force pregnancy on “selfish” women who would allow an opportunity to reproduce simply go by through abstinence. But almost no “pro-life” people maintain this position. This is not because they are inconsistent with their beliefs or because they are really anti-sex or misogynists. It is because they draw the abortion line. Before conception, these “pro-life” advocates assume a women’s right to autonomy takes precedence over a potential life. So, for them, the conception–or slightly later–is the right place to draw the abortion line, switching the mother’s right to body autonomy under the single-celled organism’s chance to develop into a fully-developed human being.
On the other side, we can ask if it is ever acceptable to draw the abortion line after birth? I have never met a “pro-choice” advocate who was so strongly “pro-choice” that they believed in the killing of a toddler in order to free the mother from her attached responsibilities to the child. If you are “pro-choice”, consistency would dictate that a woman retain the right to abort her child indefinitely. But as before, no “pro-choice” advocates maintain this position. This is not because they are inconsistent or because they are deep-down “pro-life”. It is because they too draw the abortion line. After birth, these “pro-choice” advocates assume children’s right to life takes precedence over a woman’s right to autonomy. So, taking these arguments together we can see that both rights are emphasized by both positions and the only real question becomes where specifically to draw the abortion line.
This is consistent with the Roe v. Wade decision which held that the state had an obligation to protect both essential rights. However, the decision also punted the question of where to draw the line back to the individual states. States have varied but most land somewhere before the third trimester. The decision elaborates a history of abortion looking for guidance from antiquity on where to draw the line. It notes that most ancients, including the Greeks and Romans, were ok with abortion, even very late. Early Christians, following an Aristotelian emphasis on form and a spiritual sense of ensouling matter, settled on the “quickening” (around 18 weeks). For them, the quickening symbolized the moment when a fetus first became “human” and was granted a soul by God, recognizable by its independent movement and human appearance. The decision also notes that even where abortion was illegal, it was not considered the same thing as murder, and often was treated by law as a misdemeanor rather than a felony.
When it comes down to it then, Roe v. Wade reflects our values quite well. It shows that both sides of the debate do respect both women’s autonomy and children’s right to life. Even meager honest reflection will reveal just how true this is. No “pro-life” advocate wants to have their or their mothers’, wives’, or daughters’ medical decision made for them by others. They believe that people should make their own medical decisions based on their own interests for themselves, perhaps with the counsel of a medical professional, but without the interference of the state. They just make an exception for unwanted pregnancies. At the same time, “pro-choice” women are hardly murderers. They do not advocate for abortions, only for women’s right to make the choice for themselves. They would not demand the right of parents who want to have a baby to abort. The argument then is really about whether or not society should be allowed to draw the line on medical intervention for individuals. On this point, I’m ardently libertarian. I don’t think society could make medical decisions for me, so it definitely shouldn’t. Arguably then, either you are for the state making your medical decisions for you (somewhere “death panels” still echos in the distance), or not. On that point, I think we are nearly universally agreed. “Pro-life” advocates then need to demonstrate why abortion is an exception to the rule, and the best grounds they have for it is a child’s right to life.
Of course, there are many other issues surrounding abortion. For example, whether outlawing it prevents abortions or just makes the abortions less safe. But where to draw the line returns again and again as the central problem. Most conservatives want to draw the line at conception, thus tying responsibility directly to sexual intercourse. This argument is often presented as assumed or scientific. “Life begins at conception” so the argument begins. However, conception is just as arbitrary a place to draw the line like any other; life may well begin when the sperm and egg are produced in the respective parents, or when the respective parents are themselves born, or on the other hand, when the fetus first begins to have the “form” of a human being, or when the independent multi-celled organism first attaches itself to the mother, forming not only what will become the baby but also the extra-bits of organic matter, like the placenta. In this final case, the blastocyte was no more the development of a future baby than it was the development of a future placenta.
Many feminists want to draw the line around the third trimester, with a few as late as pre-birth. Again these limits are not saying where we should actually draw the line, they are demarcating the arena in which an individual should be free to choose. Taken as a whole, these “pro-life” and “pro-choice” arguments are both markedly pro-choice. But what is more revealing is that they also both jointly create the window for abortion. Before conception, all of us agree that preventing the life process (as prevention or abstinence) is acceptable. After birth, all of us agree that aborting the life process is unacceptable. Thus, the political debate is one about setting boundaries, not drawing the actual line itself.
As I said, where we draw the actual line is ultimately arbitrary, which is why it is impossible to agree on it politically. What we usually argue over, but shouldn’t, is everything else that gets stirred-up in the mix. Questions of responsibility, sexual punishment, oppression, and much, much more are important questions, but not really as connected to the abortion debate as most of us would like to believe. We would all be infinitely better off if we could admit that we are very close on this issue, politically, a mere 24 weeks apart, and inside that window is where the abortion line should be drawn, with particular exceptions granted, such as in the case of medical emergencies, rape, and incest.
That would leave us free to deal with the real issue: whether society should draw the line for every woman or leave the window open for each individual woman to decide for herself. The former position is not “pro-life”. It is anti-choice. It is not about protecting life but rather about controlling it. The latter is “pro-choice”, but not pro-abortion, in the sense that it leaves women free to not abort, that is to choose life. This is why I am pro-choice. I believe that within the structures that we (nearly) universally find acceptable and where the particular choice is rather arbitrary, free choice ought to exist. So, while it is acceptable that society (both men and women) may determine the window in which the abortion line can be drawn, the actual choice of where to draw the line itself, within that window, must belong to the individual woman for herself.